Clearview AI facial recognition deemed illegal in Canada

A report by four privacy commissioners claimed the US company violated privacy laws and called for more robust regulations.

Controversial facial technology from Clearview AI has been deemed illegal by authorities in .

Daniel Therrien, Canada's federal privacy commissioner, said the American company violated Canadian privacy laws by collecting facial images of Canadians without their consent.

“What Clearview does is mass surveillance and it is illegal,” Therrien told reporters. “It is an affront to individuals' privacy rights and inflicts broad-based harm on all members of society who find themselves continually in a police line-up.”

Clearview AI was thrust into the spotlight last year by a New York Times investigation. It found that the company had amassed sprawling databases of facial images from numerous online sources, namely social media sites.

Police departments and other law enforcement agencies, reportedly including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, purchased Clearview's tech and access to these databases to find and match photos in their investigations.

Therrien and three provincial privacy commissioners published a report that said Clearview activities were a significant breach of privacy and have called for a strengthening of federal privacy laws to address the issue as there are currently limitations on sanctions that can be put on the company.

“In this case we are left without the ability to consider financial sanctions,” Michael McEvoy, British Columbia's privacy commissioner, said. “This lack of enforcement power combined with Clearview's blatant disregard of privacy laws leaves Canadians vulnerable.”

Therrien, McEvoy and their peers have called on Clearview to cease doing business in Canada and to delete all images of Canadians it has in its databases. However, the commissioners have little power under Canadian laws to force Clearview, a US-based company, to do so.

Clearview said it ceased operating in Canada last year but is contesting the findings of the report and intends to challenge it in court.

“Clearview AI only collects public information from the internet which is explicitly permitted,” the company's lawyer said. “Clearview AI is a search engine that collects public data just as much larger companies do, including Google, which is permitted to operate in Canada.”

Since Clearview was brought into the spotlight, numerous privacy and data protection regulators have launched probes into its operations. Investigations are underway in the UK and Australia, while the company was sued in Illinois for violating the Biometric Information Privacy Act.

In recent years, concerns have been raised about facial recognition technology in terms of surveillance, privacy, consent, accuracy and automation bias. Last July, IBM said it would scrap its facial recognition and analysis software, saying it opposed the use of technology for mass surveillance or racial profiling.

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